Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
In some respects it’s hard to predict what will happen on Sunday. We don’t know what sort of line-up Mark Hughes will select or the tactical approach Wrexham will adopt. Any such confusion should be overridden by one simple fact though: Premier League teams don’t lose at home to Conference teams. So how can Kevin Wilkin plot to overturn that fact?
I’ve held all season that we look like the sort of side which has goals in it, although some recent performances made me begin to reassess my position. However, when we’re blunted by a side it’s often because they’ve adopted a defensive approach which hampers our ability to create. That’s not going to be a problem on Sunday: a Premier League side aren’t going to park the bus at home to a Conference side!
The question is, should we park the bus? It’s not an approach I’ve seen Wrexham adopt often, and I’m struggling to think of a time when we’ve consciously set out to frustrate from the start of a match. It’s certainly not something which would appear to come easily to Kevin Wilkin, but circumstances might force us into battening down the hatches.
I hope that doesn’t happen though, as I’m not totally confident we’d be able to repel a side with Premier League quality if they’re allowed to camp in our half. There are areas of our defensive block which would be stretched by overwork, I suspect, and Manny Smith can’t be everywhere at once. If possible, we must look to take the game to Stoke, albeit in a highly controlled manner.
There are obvious parallels with our third round match with Brighton three seasons ago. They fielded a side which, while not at full strength certainly had a lot of quality. We surprised them in the first half with the quality of our play and, when they exerted pressure in the last half hour, defended with admirable robustness.
However, the current Wrexham side lack the attributes to approach the game in quite that way. We no longer retain the ball as well as Andy Morrell’s side did, the surrendering of a central midfielder in jettisoning the 4-3-3 he favoured ensured that. Also, as I outlined above, we don’t have the same sort of defensive unit we boasted then. Dean Saunders had drilled his side superbly and Morrell wisely built on those principles, so we took a side to Brighton which had a clear idea of the shape it ought to adopt when it didn’t have the ball. Forced to defend in numbers, the midfield trio blocked the channels between the back four and Brighton found themselves hammering at an impenetrable wall.
What the current side does have is a capacity to attack with pace. If we do have to dig in against Stoke, we need to make sure we have the outlets available to counter attack. Wes York might have been left out at Southport, but his pace could be crucial as we look to change swiftly from defence to attack, and unlike the Dartford match in which he found himself running into brick walls, there’ll be plenty of space behind Stoke’s attack for him to run into.
The problem all season has been that, for all our attacking promise, we don’t take the chances we ought to. This problem is liable to be magnified against a side of Stoke’s calibre as games between sides of different stature are often decided primarily on their respective qualities in front of goal. If we fail to make the most of any opportunities we carve out on Sunday, we can’t expect Stoke to be equally charitable.